It is no secret that High Street retail has been in dire straits for some time, and clothing and fashion retail have particularly suffered.
The most recent, and perhaps most high-profile example has been the struggles of Philip Green’s Arcadia Group, comprising the clothing chains Topshop, Topman, Evans, Wallis, Miss Selfridge, Burton and Dorothy Perkins, to use CVAs as a way of restructuring.
But it is not only physical fashion retail stores that are struggling. ASOS has recently issued its second profit warning in seven months, albeit blaming IT chaos in its overseas warehouses despite overall sales being up 12% in the four months to 30th June.
Obviously, cheap prices and turning around lines quickly, have been the two main things on which fashion retail has been relying. As a consequence, clothes are often made by low-paid workers in appalling conditions, in factories located in countries like Bangladesh.
However, for some years there have been demands from consumers for such workers to be paid fairly and treated better following revelations about their working conditions.
That did not, however, mean that consumers were prepared to pay more for their clothes or necessarily to wear them for longer.
Marketing plays a big part in this kind of consumer environment by encouraging shoppers to “be ahead”, “get the newest” and stay “on trend” in order to encourage them to buy and to do so often and repeatedly.
But as I said in my blog on Tuesday, corporate survival is coming increasingly dependant on a variety of demonstrably ethical behaviours, including protecting the environment and treating employees fairly.
It may be that we have reached a critical moment where the zeitgeist among consumers is changing in a way that is focussing fashion retail on the need to change its business model by marketing its ethical and sustainable credentials.
What would sustainability mean in fashion retail?
Clearly, a recent initiative by Boohoo.com highlighted its ‘new’ sustainable credentials by the launch of its range of “recycled” clothes.
The collection, the company says, has been manufactured entirely in the UK to cut air pollution and its garments are made from recycled polyester, with no environmentally unfriendly dyes or chemicals being used.
It is not yet clear if this is marketing puff or a shift in values as the launch has been greeted with some scepticism, according to an article on the BBC news website.
It may be a start but the EAC (Environmental Audit Committee) argues that it doesn’t address other issues with clothing, including the fact that synthetic fabrics used to make such garments shed micro-fibres when washed, polluting waterways or that even those that are disposed of through retailer take-back schemes or in charity collection bins will eventually find their way into landfill.
The Independent recently reported that fashion retailer Net-a-Porter plans to launch a new platform, Net Sustain, to highlight brands meeting certain criteria regarding sustainability. Attributes will include “Locally Made”, when at least 50% of a brand’s products have been manufactured within their own community or country, and “Craft & Community”, where products showcase exceptional, artisanal skills. The platform will launch with 26 brands and 500 products.
However, other pressures are also having an influence, not least all the publicity about plastic waste littering the world’s oceans and land, which it has been argued is not helped by the rise in online shopping where packages generally use plastic materials.
Fair pay for overseas garment workers and the use of sustainably grown fibres, such as cotton are also factors.
Another is the popularity of new initiatives such as the decluttering movement started by Marie Kondo who has been encouraging us to hoard less “stuff”, or the Tiny House movement that is encouraging us to use less space.
One company in Suffolk has been in the forefront of fair trade and environmentally sustainable clothing production for five years.
Where Does it Come From, operates in both India and in Africa and offers a complete history of its manufacture with each garment. It has to be said their range is not as cheap as perhaps the fast-turnaround online and high street fashion retail can produce but its ethical, environmental and sustainability credentials are impeccable.
And this is perhaps the main issue for fashion retail, promoting their values as evidenced by their actions rather than by their marketing. Will consumers be willing to pay more and buy less frequently to satisfy their concerns?
The Suffolk business has clearly been able to survive and has some extremely loyal customers but whether its model can work in the mass fashion retail market remains to be seen.